New means of protecting Ukraine’s refugees

30 March 2022

A railway platform filled with people

A railway platform filled with people wanting to leave Ukraine, on 22 March 2022. With the continuing war, many are fleeing by train to Lviv in the west of the country, or travelling on to Poland.

“The biggest refugee situation since the Second World War.” This is how international law scholar Rebecca Thorburn Stern describes the situation precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The provisions of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive, passed in 2001, are now being applied for the first time to help Ukrainian refugees.

Since 24 February, when the Russian invasion began, a huge number of Ukrainians have been on the move. Within the country, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than six and a half million people have been displaced. Almost all have fled from east to west.

“UNHCR estimates that the number who have left Ukraine is now about three and a half million. They have gone mainly to Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Moldova. Two of these are Schengen countries, which makes it more difficult to find out how many people subsequently move on to other European countries,” Thorburn Stern says.

Scale of refugee crisis much larger

Rebecca Thorburn Stern, Professor of Public
International Law at Uppsala University.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

As Professor of Public International Law at Uppsala University, Thorburn Stern specialises in migration and children’s human rights. She sees several major challenges ahead.

“So far, in three weeks, more than 14,000 people fleeing from Ukraine have made their way to Sweden. Compare that figure with the refugee crisis of 2015. Then, in the whole of that year, about 165,000 sought asylum in Sweden, and roughly 1.3 million people in the whole of the EU. So what’s happening now is on a far greater scale. There are several options for obtaining protection. In Ukraine, the state bears responsibility for people forced to leave their homes. Elsewhere, they can seek asylum; and if they meet the requirements for it to be granted, they can get a temporary residence permit according to an individual assessment.”

Activation of Temporary Protection Directive

In addition, the EU Council of Ministers has activated the TPD, also known as the Mass Influx Directive, which came into being after the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, but has never been used before.

“The purpose of the Directive was, first, to enable people to get temporary protection when a huge number are fleeing from a war zone, for example. Second, it was intended to promote solidarity and sharing of responsibility among EU member states in this kind of situation. The Directive affords protection for those who have fled from Ukraine since 24 February this year, and applies to Ukrainian nationals, and people who have been granted asylum in Ukraine, and their family members,” Thorburn Stern explains.

She emphasises, however, that the permits are for temporary stays – initially, one year. At most, the permits can be extended to March 2025, so they are not a long-term solution. Moreover, it can be complicated when a person falls within the scope of the Mass Influx Directive and is also an asylum seeker. It is not yet entirely clear how to deal with this situation, since it is a new one for the EU member states.

Major need of support measures

Thorburn Stern foresees a great need for relief efforts in the future, mainly in Ukraine and neighbouring countries such as Poland, Moldova and Romania.

“There are many internally displaced persons in Ukraine. The question is what happens if they too need to leave the country. Moldova, which borders on Ukraine and has received many people who have fled their homes, is one of Europe’s poorest countries and has limited capacity to receive them. Various organisations, such as the Red Cross and those in civil society, are making tremendous contributions there and in other countries. But the situation isn’t sustainable in the long run.”

She compares the current situation with what happened in 2015, when great willingness to receive refugees prevailed at first but was succeeded, in practice, by closed borders. Many countries in the EU were also opposed to solidarity in refugee policy and member states’ sharing of responsibilities.

“This is the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. There’s great willingness to help but, the question is, what will it look like in the long run?”

Last modified: 2021-02-14